In a class focused on considering the holistic environmental impacts of a product throughout its lifecycle, Joseph Weissgold chose to conduct his broader research on the future of the lighting industry. The research revealed that almost one-fifth of the world’s energy consumption is used for lighting, which is largely due to technological inefficiencies that are embedded in our infrastructure. In February 2012, the Department of Energy conducted a lifecycle analysis comparing incandescent, compact fluorescent, and LED light bulbs. Because of the short lifespan of incandescent bulbs, and the use of mercury in compact fluorescents, LED light bulbs emerged as by far the most sustainable option.
Joseph chose to conduct a deeper investigate specifically into the Philips Hue, because it has been so heavily publicized and it represents the cutting edge of domestic lighting technology today. Hue's core functionality is its ability to change colors through control from a smartphone app, and of course its 15,000 hour lifetime, which is standard for LED light bulbs. But upon conducting a lifecycle analysis to compare Hue to other LED light bulbs, it became clear that the additional functionality of Hue—supported by a wifi module and additional electronics—almost double its environmental impact. For Philips to have made such a sacrifice in efficiency, the added benefit of beautiful overlapping colored lights must be worth it.
Joseph proposed that we’re so attracted to these overlapping colors of light because we associate them with light in nature, which rarely are of one uniform color. Different color schemes mean different things to different people. But there are patterns. For example, orange and purple will almost universally evoke a sunset. But with artificial light, it’s hard to forget that it’s not the real thing. With Hue, clearly hours of task-light is not the primary goal, rather it's bringing light from nature into the constructed environment. So Joseph began his exploration designing with bioluminescent algae.
The algae lives in saltwater and feeds off carbon dioxide. During the day it drinks sunlight, and at night it glows blue. The effect has been portrayed in films like The Life of Pi and Avatar for its magical appearance. Many eco-designers have taken on the challenge of creating bioluminescent street lamps or windows, but it has proven impractical considering how little light it casts. But while it casts little light, it does glow quite clearly. It is this functionality that Joseph's design, Luminesce, seeks to take advantage of.
Luminesce is a carbon-negative off-grid modular lighting system. It could be used as an alternative to neon, for backlit signage, or for wayfinding quite effectively. Working off the existing model for farming algae, which is currently done for biofuel, Luminesce houses the algae in clear tubes and a small pump keeps a steady flow of carbon dioxide flowing through.
Rather than using a material that depletes as it emits light, this algae actually multiplies as it glows. The CO2 pump that you see at the back of the tube runs off solar power, so the whole systems can exist off grid. The modular system makes it such that malfunctioning segments can be replaced or repaired without detriment to the whole system. The organic nature of this product makes its lifecycle intrinsically regenerative. And most importantly it’s restorative. It consumes carbon dioxide and emits oxygen.
Luminesce presents an opportunity to make a dent in that statistic that lighting is one-fifth of our global energy consumption, and hints at a future where we don’t need to consume energy to make light, rather by making light, we are restoring our balance with nature.